Perdue's SNAP 'Work Requirement' Comments Based on False, Damaging Assumptions

It is becoming clearer that the chances of the U.S. Congress passing a new Farm Bill by the Sept. 30 deadline are slim. The main roadblock is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the expanded work requirements called for in the House version. The House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill are currently being debated in a Congressional conference committee. The principle conferees tasked with reconciling the House and Senate versions are split on the policy issue of whether or not to expand the work requirements for people who apply for and obtain this assistance to help feed their families and themselves.

This week, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue used his bully pulpit in front of National Farmers Union members gathered in D.C. to stump for the House version of SNAP. As reported by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), Secretary Perdue cast SNAP recipients as people who ought to be subject to stricter work requirements, characterizing them as saying, "I don't really want a job, I just want you to take care of me."

I can imagine myself in that audience: rural people like me, raised in a culture valuing a strong work ethic and independence. Many of these people are facing dire economic times and maybe looking for the leader of USDA to say something about the prevailing crisis in a farm economy that fails men and women who work hard and have little to show for it at the end of the season. What made me angry was that Secretary Perdue seemed to lean into this situation, touch on these values and use them to gain support for expanded work requirements for people using SNAP by saying, in effect, “let them work harder.”

The truth, according to USDA, is that SNAP has work requirements as well as time limits on benefits, and it supports work and a path out of the particular situation that led people to apply for SNAP in the first place. And the truth is that SNAP cuts would hurt rural people at a disproportionately high rate. As the Daily Yonder reports, from 2012 to 2016, about 15 percent of rural households participated in SNAP. That’s at least 2 percentage points higher than the rate for metropolitan residents. Nearly 90 percent of counties with a SNAP usage rate of 30 percent or greater are rural. Bottom line: the SNAP changes the Agriculture Secretary thinks are such a good idea will be bad news for farmers and other rural residents.

Maybe even more disheartening in Secretary Perdue’s comments about SNAP was his statement that, “…the generosity and compassion of the American people has a limit.” That was an additional judgement cast at people in our community who find themselves in a situation where they reach out and ask for help through SNAP. Here is a more grounded perspective on SNAP articulated by other farmers I serve with on the Land Stewardship Project’s Federal Policy Committee: “We as farmers need vibrant communities where no one is left behind. We all depend on each other, and just as we believe our public policy should create a safety net for family farmers, it should also provide a strong safety net for all people so they can feed their families. When all families can eat and succeed in our communities, we as farmers succeed.”

That is more like the vision I would expect to hear from my Secretary of Agriculture. I call on the principle Farm Bill conferees to reject the divisive approach taken by Secretary Perdue, and deliver an agriculture law that maintains a strong and secure SNAP.

Tom Nuessmeier farms in Le Sueur county, Minn., and is a federal policy organizer with the Land Stewardship Project. He can be reached here.